Best-Selling Author’s Heroes for Our Time

Now we know. Sesame Street is just around the corner from Ocean Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, down one of the long blocks where the houses with the stoops are, not far from the tan-brick apartment building with the awning, the gas station and the carwash.

We know this because Brad Meltzer said so. Ocean Avenue in Sheepshead Bay is where Mr. Meltzer, a best-selling novelist whose thrillers usually have twists involving law or history or maybe classified documents, lived when he was a child — in the tan-brick building between Gravesend Neck Road and Avenue W. No wonder Ocean Avenue in Sheepshead Bay figured in his explanation of a sideline, a children’s book that presents the creator of the Muppets, Jim Henson, as a hero.

“You couldn’t get to P.S. 206” — his elementary school, about four blocks from the Ocean Avenue building — “without walking past what looked like the entire set of ‘Sesame Street,’” he said. “‘Sesame Street’ was a mirror of my life. It had crazy characters who were just like my friends and family.”

It left him longing, by the time he was a grown-up, “for a world where you can dream and hope and pretend.”

It is a world he has tried to create in a series of children’s books that he sees as antidotes for a society that has “confused fame and hero” and that lionizes people who are “famous for being famous.” He does not mention any names, but he is no fan of reality television stars or how reality television differs from what he remembers watching when he was a child.

“Our kids are being fed garbage through their eyes,” said Mr. Meltzer, 46. “When I was 5, Jim Henson taught me you can use creativity to put good in the world.”

“The magic of Jim Henson is not a funny voice or the ability to make a cute puppet. It’s dreaming. It’s pretending. It’s that there’s nothing wrong with being a do-gooder.” That is a word Mr. Meltzer is unapologetic about.

Turning out children’s books is the latest plot twist in his life as a writer, a calling he credits to a ninth-grade teacher — “the first person who said to me, ‘You can write.’” The publishing world discovered him in the mid-1990s, when he was that rarest of creatures, a law student who did not write like a lawyer.

He landed a book deal and a six-figure advance, and in 1997 Rob Weisbach Books published “The Tenth Justice,” about behind-the-scenes intrigue among the clerks at the Supreme Court.

“If I was a smart person, I should write more thrillers — they pay me far more” than children’s books, he said. “But now I have kids.

“I watched my daughter go through her princess days looking at reality TV stars and thought, is this the best we have?” he continued. “I watched my son watch anyone who plays professional ball in the N.B.A. or the major leagues and thought, is this the best we have? My daughter loves reality TV. That’s her ‘Sesame Street.’”

And that, he concluded, was not good enough. He decided to “fight back and show a little bit of a better world” by writing children’s books about heroes.

“Heroes are never what we want; they are what we need,” Mr. Meltzer said. “In the Depression, Flash Gordon — it was depressing. As World War II comes, Superman. It’s not that he was the most entertaining, he was what we needed. It’s why all these superhero movies have taken off. We still need someone to come save us.”

He started with “Heroes for My Son,” which he worked on between thrillers. Then came a daughter, and “Heroes for My Daughter.” Then he began the “I Am” series with “I Am Abraham Lincoln” and “I Am Amelia Earhart,” both published in 2014, before the world was struggling with fake news and alternative facts.

“The appeal of these books is these things really happened,” he said, telling the story of a young reader whose father is a friend of his. The little girl reached the last page of “I Am Rosa Parks” and asked, “This is real?”


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